(Died in 514)
The political upheaval we witness today has nothing on that of the early 5th century.
Pope Symmacus was a major player in those events. Born in Sardinia to pagan parents, Symmacus came to Rome, converted to Catholicism and was baptized. That’s all we know about his early life and we have no record of specific dates in that part of his story. He rose quickly within the ranks of the church and became a deacon.
After Acacius became the patriarch of Constantinople in 482 with support of the Byzantine emperor Zeno, Acacius had drawn up an edict of union called the “Henotikon” in efforts to unite various Christian factions. It stated that Christ was God and man, one, not two. When He performed miracles or experienced the Passion, they were the works of one, but the decree didn’t specify whether it was in person or nature.
The Western Church found this unacceptable and contrary to core beliefs. So, when Symmachus became Pope in 498, he walked into a tumultuous time in the identity of the Church.
Further complicating his papacy, a rival, Laurentius, was promoted by the Roman Senator Festus, who was more favorable to Constantinople. Laurentius was elected by a rival group of clergy, supported by Festus, as the antipope shortly after Symmachus’ elevation.
King Theodoric got in on the case as well (the state had more power in religious affairs of that time). Because Symmachus had been elected first (even if only by hours), Theodoric declared Symmachus the legitimate pope.
At a synod in 499, Symmachus appointed Laurentius as the Bishop of Nocera, near Naples. Some have interpreted this move as an appeasement, while others see it as just getting his rival out of the way. At the same synod, a papal law was made that made the promotion of any cleric for papal election prior to the death of an existing pope a crime punishable by excommunication.
Festus was persistent and charged that Symmachus was celebrating Easter according to the old calendar rather than the newer, church-approved one. The king summoned Symmachus to Ravenna (then capital of the West and Italy) to defend himself against the charge. The pope agreed to come but along the way found out that Festus had fabricated further charges of embezzlement and fornication, so he turned around, mid voyage, and never went to Ravenna.
This emboldened the supporters of Laurentius, who called him back to Rome where he was placed on the throne of the Lateran (then seat of the pope). Symmachus took residence at the Vatican, which at the time was a less important church.
A second synod was called. When Symmachus and his retinue were crossing town to the meeting, they were attacked. Several priests were killed and Symmachus was injured. Two more synods took place to settle the matter. Finally, it was decided to leave it up to God and Symmachus was allowed to remain as pope. The king did not come to Symmachus’ side until popular opinion swung in the pope’s direction. Laurentius retired to one of Festus’ farms.
During his papacy, Symmachus supported those in the East that were opposed to the Henotikon. He wrote to the emperor on this behalf and the Emperor, in effect, told him to mind his own business. Symmachus then forbade faithful clergy to give Communion to the heritics.
Symmachus settled many boundary conflicts and built several churches in Rome and refurbished the catacombs. He also lent support to the church in Africa and to victims of the barbarian invasions in the north of Italy.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini